Words by Ann Lee
Este Haim had always wanted to try composing but she was too busy breaking records and sticking it to the patriarchy with her band Haim. So when she landed her first gig scoring Netflix’s devastating new drama Maid, the singer and bassist relished the complete freedom she had. “It's like when the mad scientist gets into the lab for the first time and there are all the beakers - the possibilities are endless. You throw all this spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.”
The 35-year-old, who makes effervescent pop rock with her sisters Danielle and Alana as part of Haim, was approached by a friend who worked at LuckyChap Entertainment, one of the companies behind Maid. “I've never scored anything before,” she says over Zoom from LA. “I'd written songs for movies and TV shows but I’d never written music to picture in that way. But I knew that I was always interested in it.”
She signed on but with one caveat - Este wanted a composing partner and enlisted musician Christopher Stracey to work with her. “I knew my strengths and my weaknesses,” she admits. “I knew that I wasn't going to be able to do it alone. My strong suit is melody and not necessarily the technical aspects. I play the guitar, I play the drums, I play bass. I'm not a great pianist. So I knew if that's what the score required, I would need a partner. I also like collaborating. I've been collaborating with my sisters since we were kids.”
Maid is a hard-hitting drama about domestic abuse starring Margaret Qualley, Nick Robinson and Andie MacDowell. Based on Stephanie Land’s best-selling memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, it revolves around a young woman named Alex (Qualley) who is desperately trying to build a better life for her daughter after escaping from an abusive relationship. She finds a job cleaning houses and starts to write about her experiences. Since being released in October, it’s currently poised to overtake The Queen's Gambit as Netflix's most-watched miniseries.
I never had to specifically service something that was on screen & in a weird way it was really freeing. Truly, I loved it so much.
Este would receive a new episode to score each week so watching Maid took her back to the days pre-streaming where she would impatiently wait for her favourite show to air. “Every week, I was like: ‘Oh my God, what happens next?’ No one would give me spoilers. So in a way, I was also an audience member, really just wanting to know what happens to Alex and being invested in her story.”
Sometimes, Maid’s unflinching look at coercive control, emotional abuse and generational trauma would get to her. One episode shows Alex and her two-year-old daughter, Maddy, seeking refuge at a domestic violence shelter. “That was a tough episode for me to score because I was really emotional about it. I remember just having to take a minute to collect myself because it was really intense. That happened a few times during the season, where I was truly invested in the story. It was hard not to fall in love with Alex and be rooting for her, and also at the same time, feel so incredibly frustrated and puzzled as to why this is happening to her.”
Este graduated with a degree in ethnomusicology, specialising in Bulgarian and Brazilian music, from UCLA and working on the score for Maid was a good opportunity for her to let loose. “I love world music. I played tabla in college, I played the sitar, I played every Brazilian drum and I was in the Bulgarian women's choir. So there's a little bit of that. You hear tinges of my stint in the choir in the first episode with the vocals. It's not me singing, it's my friend, but I was telling her what to do.”
The whole process was one of trial and error - she and Christopher (who she refers to as Stray) would experiment with sounds in the studio to see which ones worked. “A lot of it was Stray plucking out chords on the piano. Then me taking the guitar and following along, singing melodies, and then plucking them out on other instruments. He's just such a whizz with sonics. His studio has all these '80s and '90s synths and a grand piano.”
The pair tested out different approaches. “We did some muting of piano strings. We incorporated that a lot. I strummed the guitar with a paintbrush just to give it some texture. There was nothing where he was like: ‘Let's not do that.’ It's something that I need. Just to have a partner that's up for anything.” Este also asked her friend Ludwig Göransson, who scored Tenet and Black Panther, for advice during the project.
In Maid, Alex spends many painful moments navigating a tangled bureaucratic web that leaves her trapped in grinding poverty as she tries desperately to get government support. She’s estranged from her father, Hank (Billy Burke), while her mother, Paula (Qualley’s real-life mum MacDowell), is struggling with mental health problems.
Este, who counts Danny Elfman, Trent Reznor and Philip Glass as some of her favourite composers, wanted to capture “a feeling of loneliness, a feeling of abandon, and a feeling of cold” that struck her from the first episode. “We worked tirelessly to nail down those three feelings and how they sound. My sensibilities are definitely more pop and rock-leaning. So marrying all of those things together took a little bit of time.”
Este has been part of Haim since 2007. The sisters first started out as part of a family band called Rockinhaim with their mother and father that played covers of The Beatles and Van Morrison at charity gigs. Soon, the siblings started writing songs without their parents. The talented sisters share vocals and are all multi-instrumentalists.
Their debut album, Days Are Gone, was released in 2013 and debuted at number one in the UK charts with critics going crazy for their winsome blend of ‘70s rock, folk and ‘90s R'n'B. Their most recent LP, Women in Music Pt. III, was nominated for Album of the Year at this year’s Grammy Awards making them the first all-female band ever to earn that distinction.
Este is baffled as to why it’s taken so long. “It's insane because there are so many female rock bands that have come before my sisters that truly deserved to be nominated for Album of the Year. I am proud of that accomplishment. But I do think that it's crazy and frustrating that it's taken this long. But hopefully, that means it'll change and more girls will write songs and pick up guitars, basses and drums. If anything, that's what I hope comes out of it.”
In an industry that is full of carefully curated images, Haim have always been open about their vulnerabilities. Este is diabetic and has worn her insulin pump in videos and on her arm on stage during performances. During a set at Glastonbury in 2013, the musician was forced to perform sitting down after her blood sugar plummeted and she felt like she was going to pass out. Her illness means she had to be extra careful with shielding during the pandemic.
The band have also spoken about the sexism they’ve experienced through the years. On their last album, they penned a song called Man From The Magazine, detailing a shocking encounter with a male journalist who asked Este if she made the “same faces in bed” as she does while playing bass. “In the moment, it was really scary,” she says. “In hindsight, it made me angry. I'm lucky that I had Danielle and Alana there to listen to me vent post-interview. It was so early in our career and we had been taught to just kind of take things like that. You know you don't want to ruffle anyone's feathers.
Sometimes, I feel like it's a lot of two steps forward, three steps back. But all we can do is keep making good shit and fighting for more equality.
“I think all three of us were just kind of frozen in fear. All I could do was answer the question with a joke and then he moved on. So in a weird way, it worked. To me, it felt like he wanted me to be uncomfortable so that maybe I would say something that I shouldn't say. But I didn’t. I held my composure. The Este Haim now would not have been as polite.”
Haim famously fired their agent when they found out they were being paid 10 times less than a male artist at a festival. They’ve also recorded anthems about powerful women like Right Now from their second album Something to Tell You, which was written as “an ode to boss-ass bitchness”. But despite the growing awareness in the music industry about gender equality, Este thinks there’s still a long way to go. “Sometimes, I feel like it's a lot of two steps forward, three steps back. But all we can do is keep making good shit and fighting for more equality.
“It's all about putting good art into the world and then hoping that things continue to get better. Even though it feels like baby steps, sometimes it's the little victories that add up. But God, I hope that we continue on a good path within this industry because I know that my sisters and I have definitely experienced our share of sexism and misogyny.”
Composing the score for Maid at the beginning of the year gave Este the chance to embrace a new challenge during the pandemic. At the time, only her boyfriend and her sisters were in her support bubble while Christopher only had his wife in his. “It was nice to have a person to make music with and a place to go every day. Every week, every episode, it was something different. There's not a lot of repetition when it comes to the score. There's a lot of very specific cues. There were parts of the show where we were taking themes from previous episodes but the majority were new cues that we had to write.”
Most of all, Este was surprised at how different scoring felt compared to writing songs for Haim. She has always strived to grow as much as possible as a lyricist but with that component taken away from her, the musician suddenly felt like a big weight had been lifted off her shoulders. “When I said yes to doing this, I think maybe I was slightly naive in that I thought: ‘I've done this before. I can write a song. I can write melody. Like, I can do all of this. It’s not my first rodeo! I didn't think that I was going to feel like it was this entirely new experience as a musician. I know it sounds corny but it did feel different.
“I never had to specifically service something that was on screen and in a weird way it was really freeing. Truly, I loved it so much. I had the best time doing it and I want to do it a million times more.”